I was born on the north side of Chicago and lived close to Wrigley Field first and then near Ohare Airport. My mother and grandfather instilled in me a love of fishing, which gradually transformed into keeping aquaria in high school, and my father instilled a general love of the outdoors. I often point to an incident at the pet store in which I worked as starting me down my career path. We had received a large shipment of common plecos (Pterygoplichthys pardalis or P. padalis X disjunctivus). When I came in early the next morning, many of them were on the ground and presumably dead. They had jumped out, perhaps due to over crowding, during the night. I was about to throw one in the trash when it barely moved. Somehow it was alive! We put them back in the tank and most survived. I would later work on accessory respiratory organs of plecos and Pterygoplichthys has a large, respiratory stomach that allows them to breathe air.
In college, I started in engineering, but was soon bored of the material and decided to go back to my first love. My first research as an undergrad was on fish behavior with Dr. Carol Johnston at the University of Illinois and Illinois Natural History Survey. I would stay there as a graduate student under Dr. Larry Page. in 1992, I tiook my first trip to the Neotropics and found a fish that I identified as Aphanotorulus that I figured was new. That got me hooked on loricariids and I started a project on the morphological phylogeny of them for my PhD, which I obtained in 1997.
After the PhD, I did a year-long postdoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian under Dr. Richard Vari, studying a group of wood-eating catfishes then known as Cochlidon. That year (1998), I obtained a faculty position at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, and I began building the fish collection and getting it in order. The collection was about 25,000 cataloged lots (jars) in 1998 and is now 85,000! These came in part from our collections (about 25,000 lots) as well as rescuing orphaned collections and cataloging backlog.
Part of the growth of the Auburn University Fish Collection was because of the All Catfishes Species Inventory, one of the largest grants in the history of taxonomy. I was a co-principal investigator along with Larry Page, John Lundberg, Mark Sabaj, Carl Ferraris, and John Friel. ACSI was likely the single greatest factor in the growth of species descriptions of catfishes in the early part of the twenty-first century. When it was completed, I joined ACSI II or the All Cypriniformes Species Inventory. I was looking for a change of pace and a group that would be easier to examine the evolutionary ecology of. This project allowed me to branch out to different taxa, different geographic regions, and different types of analyses. in particular, my lab published one of the first broad phylogenomic studies in fishes examining the relationships of the Cypriniformes as well as a recent study on the phylogenomics of the North American Shiners.
Along the way, my life also went underground with the study of the North American Cavefishes. This is a complex and difficult taxonomic group. Our main study species has been the Southern Cavefish (Typhlichthys subterraneus). Despite most cave animals being fairly restricted to individual cave systems, Typhlichthys lineages are pretty broadly distributed, and we almost never see adults!
Today, we are looking to foward the work that we have been doing on the Cypriniformes, particularly the Leuciscidae (the group of minnows that includes all of the native North American species) and the Catostomidae (suckers). In addition, we will likely expand our work on the African Small Barbs. There is still a lot of South American taxonomy that we are working on as well.
I am married with two kids. My wife is an instructor of Anatomy and Physiology at Southern Union State Community College in Opelika, and neither of the kids seem to have any interest in anatomy at all! I have two dogs, Eevee (a german shepherd/doberman mix) and Autumn (hound/lab/pit/probably a bunch of other things mix). I like fixing and building things around the house (although I am not particularly good at it). I recently started playing guitar after not having done so since I was about 13.
Below are some photos of me in the field throughout the years in Alabama, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Guyana, and Suriname.